Monday, April 19, 2010

Chapter Six

"Calm down Johnsa!" Phanza said with authority.

"Why should I? What have you done to me?!" Johnsa said harshly.

"We have done nothing. Like Hosus said before, she found you unconscious among the dead. Whatever happened to you happened before we showed up. In fact, if no one has seen you like this before, it is safe to assume the change occurred during your battle."

Phanza felt pity for this woman. She had been changed, possibly forever, into something that even he could not understand. There was just no simple way to experience that. And although her expression did not look comforted by his explanation, the burning intensity of her crimson eyes had diminished.

"Please, let us help you. We can help you discover what has changed and if necessary, help you learn how to control it,” he continued.

Phanza stoically ignored Pral's murderous glance at his offer to help. A magic-stealing being was not something to be left alone and unguarded. With those eyes, she would not be able to hide from whatever might understand her newfound ability. Fortunately, Johnsa was so focused on Phanza's words she missed Pral's look.

"Control it?" Her harsh voice was softened by her hesitation.

"Excuse me?" Phanza was momentarily taken aback. "Control it?"

"You said control it didn't you? What do I have to control?"

Damn, I said too much! Phanza watched as fear crept into her features. How will she react to learning she absorbs magical energies? Phanza sighed. What to do? What should I do?

"Show her Phanza. She can handle it."

Phanza glanced in Hosus' direction. Did she know about Johnsa’s ability? But her words held such confidence in their new charge that Phanza nodded immediately. He didn't understand how she knew, but that was something he could ask about later. Phanza took a deep breath and closed his eyes, preparing himself for a little demonstration.

Raising his hands in a cup before him, he uttered, "Vrecta" three times in a swaying cadence. From his palms rose a small wisp, an ever-changing cloud shimmering with bright lights. The wisp started drifting toward Johnsa, who shied back but did not turn away. She seemed unaware of the savagely hungry look on her face as she watched every minute change in the magical cloud approaching her.

The rest of the group watched on curiously, some entranced by the wisp and others carefully watching Johnsa. When the wisp was an arm's length from Johnsa, it bumped against an invisible wall and stopped. Then, it vanished. A red flare erupted from Johnsa’s eyes, forcing everyone but Phanza and Hosus to shield their eyes. Those two watched intently as Johnsa's back arched with a sharp inhalation of breath, watched as an ecstatic smile spread across her face.

The flare up only lasted a moment, and ended almost as quickly as it happened. The group watched as Phanza nodded to himself and bent to whisper with Hosus. Nar glanced at Glyc and Wenley, who shrugged in unison but looked to Phanza with concerned faces. Bertran fidgeted, trying to emulate Pral, who merely looked on dispassionately.

Johnsa had her eyes closed, red pulses illuminating her eyelids, completely oblivious to the rest of the group. It took several vocal prods from Phanza and a sharp poke from Hosus before she focused on reality again.

She looked confused and somewhat disappointed when she opened her eyes again. Her eyes, still shining brilliantly, bathed the onlookers' faces in a bloody light. With everyone looking at her, Johnsa looked down sheepishly.


She slowly looked up to the young wizard.


"Through some unknown cause, you are now immune to magic."

There was a long delay before Johnsa reacted. "Wait...what?"

If the entire group hadn't been stunned into silence or taciturn by nature, one of the twins would have invariably made a rude comment about Johnsa's eloquence.

"I correct myself. What I should have said is that you absorb magic. I'm not sure how or why, but any magical energies directed at you disappeared. They just vanish into you. That is what happened with the wisp."

"Hold on, did something like that happen last night when you examined her? Is her ability to…to draw in energy what made you faint?" Nar asked quickly, a puzzled and worried look creating odd wrinkles on his brow.

Phanza nodded. "When my magic probed through her, it was absorbed almost immediately. What's more, because of my physical contact with her, Johnsa unknowingly absorbed a large portion of my innate energy as well."

"Something similar happened to me when I found her," Hosus added. "When that big Slandra came up on us, I tried using a blinding spell. It came off my blades, but it disappeared. I put it together after Phanza fainted last night."


Throughout this conversation, Johnsa sat with her legs tucked under her, a dumb expression covering her features. While everyone else was focused on Phanza's explanation, Pral had quietly made his way next to Johnsa.

"You are an odd one."

His quiet words jerked Johnsa out of her daze.

"Excuse me?"

"You were just informed that something fundamental in you has changed. And although you've been hiding behind that stupid look, you've been assessing all of us, our combat potential."

"What are you talking about?" Johnsa asked, turning to face her examiner.

"Tell me, Johnsa. What were you before you joined us?"

"I am...well, I guess I was a Ramadan in the Human Protection Forces."

"A Ramadan eh?" Slightly raised eyebrows were his only betrayal of surprise. "That's impressive. Tell me, were you the one who rescued those men from the ambush a few days ago?"

"Yes, but how did you know we were attacked?" Could she dare to hope others had escaped? "Did you meet other survivors?"

"No we did not. However, Hosus was caught in the fight while scouting for us. She informed me of the battle's outcome."

"She was there?" Johnsa turned to stare at Hosus. As if she had heard her name called, Hosus stared right back, staunchly ignoring the argument concerning Johnsa's ability raging over her head.

"Indeed. Now tell me. What hand does Nar favor?"

"His left," she answered automatically.

"How does Hosus stand in defense?"

"With her left shoulder back and her daggers in a reverse grip. Why do you ask?" Johnsa was curious as to why Pral was asking these questions, but they also made her nervous.

Pral nodded to himself. "Yet you have never seen these things. How do you know?"

"I..." Johnsa paused, her confusion causing a small furrow in her forehead. She had no idea how she knew. "I don't know," she finished slowly.

Pral touched her shoulder, an almost sad look on his face. "You have an extraordinary talent," he said quietly.

Johnsa knew he was not talking about her new anti-magic ability.

"What do you mean?" she whispered, but Pral had already faded away, back to sitting with the group, adjudicating the argument with slight nods and waves of his calloused hand. Johnsa watched him for another moment, wondering about this enigmatic leader of such a diverse group.

What is your purpose with these people Pral?

Johnsa slept poorly that night. The revelations concerning her new abilities had left her badly shaken, and blinding red eyes dominated her nightmares.

It was the red eyes that made Johnsa flinch back into consciousness. It was almost the darkest part of the night, after the moon had set and only the stars remained, and Johnsa could barely make out a figure standing watch just beyond their campsite.

Pral. Sudden comprehension, void of any identifiable source, came to her. She suppressed a shiver at the realization that her new gift had bestowed that knowledge on her.
She watched him for a time before exhaustion dragged her back into unconsciousness.


Dawn greeted the small encampment through a thick covering of dark clouds. Hosus could almost taste the moisture in the air, and she was not looking forward to traveling through the wilderness in a storm.

Pral greeted her waking with a nod. He stirred from his post and began moving among their fellows, gently nudging them awake. Hosus yawned and knuckled the small of her back. An unkind root had taken refuge beneath her bedroll, one she had not noticed before retiring, and caused her minor discomfort all night. She would have moved her blankets but after there was no guarantee anywhere else would be more comfortable.

Hosus rose and shook Phanza and Bertran awake. The twins were already up and beginning their preparations for the day's travel, eager to be away from the stench of death that filled the glade. They were wise enough to fish out the oiled cloaks in anticipation of the rain. Bertran elbowed his brother, and Nar swatted at him drowsily. Nar was a notoriously late sleeper and everyone took great delight in finding new ways to get him out of his bedroll in the morning, and Hosus watched as Bertran began rolling him toward one of the corpses. She glanced over at Johnsa. The Ramadan was still in a deep sleep, her breathing easy and steady. After the shocks she received the night before, Hosus decided not to wake her yet.

Hosus noticed some movement from the sleeper when the smells of breakfast, mercifully prepared by Phanza, filled their campsite. She quickly filled a bowl with porridge, of which they had very little left she noted, and sat down next to Johnsa.

"Good morning," she said quietly.

Johnsa's eyes fluttered open, but a single ray of sunshine slipped through the clouds and made her close them tightly again.

"Morning it may be but there's..." she began, but a groan of pain interrupted her. She clutched her head, her face contorted in pain.

"What's wrong?" Hosus asked quickly, beckoning Phanza over.

"My...head..." was all Johnsa could manage, her jaw clenched tight.

Phanza joined them and knelt to examine Johnsa. Hosus noticed that he was wearing a pair of thin leather gloves but was still carefully avoiding lingering contact with Johnsa's skin. Hosus saw a great deal of sense in that, as they still did not comprehend the changes that had occurred in this strange woman.

Another outcry drew Hosus' thoughts away from Phanza's precautions and back to his charge. As she listened to Phanza quietly ask Johnsa about the pain, Hosus watched as Johnsa's skin glowed red for a moment and then...rippled. She could think of no other way to describe what happened.

Hosus snatched Phanza back from the groaning woman. Covered or not, she did not want to take the chance of Johnsa siphoning off more of his energy. What is going on?

Another rippled transfigured Johnsa's body, moving out from her center. Hosus watched as it reached her extremities and then, impossibly, continued. She watched as the rippled moved from Johnsa's arms and into the air. The ground it passed over turned to stone and roots to dust.

Hosus lay transfixed by the horrible thing emanating from Johnsa's body. Her mind screamed at her to move, but her body wouldn't respond. Time seemed to slow as the ripple spread, and Hosus could only stare in sheer terror as it spread closer to her.

But the ripple dissipated less than a foot away from its source. Johnsa now lay in a perfect circle of stone and ash. Hosus stared at Johnsa, still glowing, but now glowing white instead of red.

She glanced over at Phanza. He looked pale as a ghost, and Hosus imagined she didn't look much better. What they had just witnessed had only lasted a few seconds and had not involved them, but they were both panting as if they had run several miles.

"W-what was that?" Hosus managed, though it barely came out as a whisper.

Phanza swallowed hard and licked his lips before answering.

"I don't know. I'm not sure I want to know either. But one thing is for sure, we're both lucky to be alive and whole." He couldn't keep himself from shuddering.

What is she?! Hosus thought wildly.

The others glanced over, curious looks on their faces. Curiosity turned to concern when each noticed the newly formed stone circle. Almost as one, they rushed toward Hosus and Phanza.

"Stop!" Hosus held up her hand imperiously. "Don't come any closer."

They all stopped dead in their tracks, all except for Pral who was giving Johnsa a wide berth as he circled around to get behind Hosus and Phanza.

"What happened?" he asked quietly, still moving.

Hosus took a deep breath, trying to slow her racing heart.

"I'm not sure. She was waking up, some sunlight blinded her. She started to say something then clutched her head. She looked like she was in a lot of pain so I called Phanza over. She started to glow red like after she absorbed magic last night," she looked around to make sure everyone understood, "and then something...rippled through her." Hosus shuddered at the memory.

"Rippled through her? Explain."

Phanza continued. "Like a pebble thrown into a pond. Her body just rippled. There's no other way to explain it."

Pral was now almost behind them, though he had never taken his eyes off of Johnsa. He watched her as though she were a sleeping lion who would awaken and attack at any moment.

"Okay, so she rippled. Then what?"

"Hosus knocked me back. Thank the Gods she did, or I'd be dust right now," he finished hesitantly.

This statement stunned the group.

"You two are okay though right?" The concern in Wenley's voice was enough to bring Hosus back to her senses. She grabbed Phanza's arm and started crawling backwards.

"We're fine," she said as Pral helped them to their feet, "just a little shaken."

Pral looked them both up and down but noticed no physical hurt. He gave them a reassuring nod. Then all eyes went to Johnsa.

"What else happened? Why is she suddenly laying in a circle of rock?" Pral continued.

Hosus picked the story back up where Phanza had trailed off. "After I pulled Phanza back, she rippled again. Only this time the ripple didn't stop. It went right out of her body, right through the air. Everything it passed over turned to stone and dust."

Noticing Nar's shiver, Hosus flashed him a small, reassuring smile. "This keeps happening and even you might become a light sleeper," she quipped.

The joke hung still in the air between them all for a moment. Finally Bertran couldn't resist a chuckle, giving his brother a little shove. His laugh was infectious and soon everyone joined in. The twins were clutching their sides, gasping for air, and even Pral let out a snort of amusement. It was a nervous laughter, the type that followed a battle when one laughed at his continued survival. It helped relieve some of the group's tension.

After that one snort, Pral remained quiet, a considering look on his features as he continued to watch Johnsa.

You say she glowed?" he interrupted.

His quiet voice cut through the laughter, and Hosus nodded. Everyone was once more soberly examining Johnsa's still form.

"She glowed red. Just like her eyes after the absorbed magic last night, " Hosus reiterated, "And after the second ripple disappeared, she glowed white for a moment."

Pral's lips were pursed and Hosus could see what he was thinking.

"You think there's a connection." It was a statement, not a question.

"Possibly. No way to tell for certain. Any thoughts Phanza?"

All eyes turned to the mage.

"Her abilities are unlike anything I've ever seen or even heard of. I would imagine that the red glow of the absorption and the red glow before the rippled are linked somehow but as you said Pral, there's no way to know for sure."

Pral nodded at the assessment. "No more magic anywhere around her. From now on, someone watches her every hour of the day and night. She's too dangerous to leave on her own. Glyc, Wenley, finish packing up the gear. Bertran, Nar, I want you to go look for some vines or tough leaves. Anything we can use to bind her if it becomes necessary. Hosus, I want you to scout our back trail, see if our path is well-concealed. Don't go more than a mile. Phanza, I want you to keep a very close eye on Johnsa. Don't try to wake her until Nar and Bertran get back. If she stirs, call me. I'll start cleansing the site." He looked around to see that everyone understood. "Good. I want everyone finished and back in fifteen minutes."

At his barked orders, everyone moved out. Hosus was hesitant to leave Phanza, but Pral fixed her with a steady gaze. She sighed and faded into the underbrush back the way they came.
Phanza seated himself a few feet distant from Johnsa. She seemed to be asleep again, for her breathing was deep and even. Even so, she seemed to glow softly, illuminated more than the pale filtered sunlight could account for.

Although he had gotten control of himself again, Phanza was still badly shaken by what he and Hosus had experienced. In his years of studying, he had never before come across anything like the woman lying before him. He had read of demons who siphoned off the life energy of those around them, but from what he knew it had been restricted to living things. That ripple had turned even the ground to stone.

"What brought that on?" he muttered, thinking about the ripple. His analytical mind started churning through the facts, protecting him from the memory of almost being vaporized. They had found no similar stone circles where they had found her. She had not absorbed any magic but for the little he had fed her the night before. "Very curious."

Crouched and gazing at the still form, Phanza considered Pral's orders. His prohibition against magic was a wise decision, considering the circumstances, but it left Phanza useless. If they were forced to fight for whatever reason, he would be unable to aid the group. That thought troubled him profoundly. His magic was his entire reason for being and without it, he was a deadweight on the group.

With a shake of his head, Phanza turned his mind away from such dark thoughts. He would find a way to contribute and understanding Johnsa was the way to do it. He focused his thoughts on the problem in front of him.

In an effort to better understand what they were dealing with, Phanza attempted to systematically categorize what they knew of Johnsa's new abilities.

"She can absorb magic." He lifted a finger.

"She can do that ripple thing which apparently sucks anything living or life-giving dry." Another finger.

"She can read fighters," came Pral's soft voice from across the fire's remains.

The twins straightened abruptly and Glyc wore a positively shocked expression. Phanza nodded, curious as to how Pral knew but not overly concerned. He lifted another finger.

"How does she..." Glyc started, but Wenley threw a pot at him before he could finish.

"And she can glow." Wenley added smartly.

A fourth finger lifted almost begrudgingly, but Phanza had to admit it was something new and possibly linked.

Phanza looked at his raised fingers and wondered how many he would add as long as they traveled with this unique and enigmatic woman.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Chapter Five

“What was that?!” Glyc and Wenley asked in unison.

The group had been walking along the border of the wood heading west into the setting sun and away from the battle of the day before, or so they hoped, when they had heard an ear-rending scream from a grove further out on the plain. The group had stopped and was looking out across the grasslands. A sudden and almost viscous silence had descended after that scream, and everyone felt discomfited. Even the stoic Pral showed some nerves by loosening his sword in its sheath.

“Be wary,” Pral said, his hand on the pommel of his sword. He was answered by the soft rasp of bared steel as Bertran revealed his weapon. Pral looked over at him and shook his head. Bertran shrugged and replaced the great sword, but his fingers constantly twitched as if seeking the grooved hilt.

“Shall I investigate?” Hosus asked.

Pral shook his head again. “Something that makes that kind of sound should not be confronted, even by you, Hosus. We’ll try to bypass it in the woods and see if we can put some distance between it and us before full dark.”

Hosus nodded. What could that have been? Maybe it was an animal, but…that pain. It was all too human. Who could have done that? These thoughts intrigued her, and she spared a quick glance for Pral as he began moving deeper into the protective confines of the forest. He was absorbed in finding a fast path away from the shriek and wouldn’t notice if she disappeared quickly. At the moment he had all of his attention on the trail, Hosus slipped, unnoticed by her companions, out onto the plain.

Moving quickly away from the group, she veered toward the grove, maneuvering behind a few hills to block her from view of the forest. She needed to find out what had caused such anguish. She couldn’t have explained why she needed to, only that she did. She let out a mirthless chuckle, reflecting on the real possibility that her curiosity would be the death of her. Slowly approaching where she thought the source must be, she was greeted by the sickly sweet smell of death and decay. She peered through the screen of trees at a small clearing filled with bodies. As she moved closer, she saw both the bodies of Slandra and of men.

Were these the men from the battle a few days ago? Why did the Slandra follow them? Looking out at all of the bloody corpses, Hosus noticed it had only led to their deaths. She was astounded to see that a great many more of the bodies belonged to the Slandra than the humans. They must’ve put up one hell of a fight to take out that many snakes.

Creeping forward into the clearing, Hosus stepped lightly around the dead. She finally came within the borders of the human camp, which she could only tell by the torn cloth of the tents and some overturned cook pots. Peering around one of the mangled tents, Hosus saw a single crouched figure. She could not tell if it was a man or woman, but she was relieved to see it was human. The person’s red hair stood on end, but that was all Hosus could see. Circling around, Hosus managed to get a better look at the mysterious figure. It was indeed a woman, and a badly injured one at that. Her hair was not the only thing dyed red. All of her clothing looked as if it was crusted with dried blood. Even her face, the parts not covered in dirt, looked like it was caked in blood. But it wasn’t her hair, or her blood-stained appearance that held Hosus’ eyes. The woman’s eyes were red too, not only the whites but the irises as well. Only her pupils looked natural, and Hosus shivered in spite of herself.

A final flash of sunlight illuminated the woman, and it seemed as if those red eyes sucked in the light until they glowed. Darkness fell quickly, and as the sun dropped, so did the woman. Hosus did not stand yet, even though she was hidden by the dark. She didn’t move at all. Those eyes…those red eyes were burned into her mind. What by the gods does it mean? She can’t be human!

Waiting several unearthly moments in the dark, Hosus crept forward through the bodies and bloodied grass until she lay no more than an arm’s reach away from the now supine figure. Even in the soft moonlight, the woman gave off a reddish aura, and Hosus shivered again. She did not understand who or what lay before her, but it was something powerful. Listening carefully, Hosus heard the soft, even breathing of one in exhausted slumber.

Leaving her here would surely mean her death with all the scavengers around. What do I do? Hosus did not enjoy her uncertainty. In her hunting and stalking, she rarely felt it, even when she dealt the death blow to her quarry. Random thoughts fluttered around her mind as she mulled over this dilemma. What to do, what to do…Pral certainly wouldn’t be happy if I just showed up with this exotic woman. Hosus made up her mind. I won’t leave her to die! she thought vehemently.

Arising from her small hideaway among the corpses, Hosus moved quickly now that her hesitation had been overcome. She stepped over the few bodies in front of her and moved into the clear circle surrounding the woman. The lithe hunter moved up and scooped up the sleeping form, struggling slightly with the dead weight in her arms. Turning back the way she came, she started to hurry back to the others when a soft hissing filled her ears.


“Hey guys! Guys! Where’s Hosus?”

Pral looked back at Nar, who had taken up the rear guard. “She’s gone, some time back. She took off toward the source of that scream as soon as we turned deeper into the woods.” Though Hosus thought she had probably escaped unnoticed, Pral had been aware of her every step that had taken her out of eyesight, and finally out of earshot as well.

“Why would she do that? You told her not to check it out. Fool woman, when she gets back…” Bertran fell off into muttering soft curses, but his worry was etched on his features.

“Are we going after her?” asked the twins.

“We go on. If she is in trouble, she’ll have to figure out how to get herself out. She’s good at that.”

“What if she can’t? What if this time, when she needs us most, we forsake her?” Phanza said, almost in a whisper.

Pral looked back at the sorcerer, a murderous glint in his eyes. He did not appreciate being second guessed. “Alright then. We’ll vote on it. Those of you who think we should go hunt down our hunter, raise your hand.” Every hand but Pral’s shot up. An angry growl escaped from Pral, he who showed no emotion in battle.
“Follow me, and keep up. This won’t be a leisurely walk.”

Turning off the trail he had forged, Pral started at a jog through the underbrush, heading straight back to the plain. The other members eyed each other dubiously, but with mischievous grins on their faces, then ran to catch up with their leader.
Running almost full speed through a forest, even a thinning one, was no easy task, especially when encumbered by weapons and armor. After the initial jog, Pral had taken to alternating between sprints and runs. As he said, it was no leisure walk, and soon the group began to only run on the sprints and jog on the runs. Though they escaped the restricting confines of the forest relatively quickly at their pace, it left them winded for the longer portion.

Pral allowed them to rest for a moment when they reached the grasslands, but after a quick gulp from their water bags he drove them relentlessly on again. When they finally reached the knoll covered in death, they were exhausted. While the rest panted with their hands on their knees, Pral looked at them with something bordering on disdain. He was breathing normally and was only mildly sweating.

Before anyone could even slow their racing hearts, a soft hissing had every weapon pulled from sheathes and quivers in an instant. Pral held his hand down, ordering everyone to stay put and be silent, and he went forward noiselessly into the clearing ahead.

Expecting a silent return, everyone was startled when the clear ring of steel clashing against steel sounded back to them. Ignoring Pral’s command, they charged forward into the clearing to see Pral and a single gigantic Slandra wielding an enormous mace facing off, the bodies of two women lying slightly behind Pral’s defensive stance. Phanza took a looked closer and discovered that one of the bodies was Hosus. A sudden fear sprang up within him and he quickly muttered a curse that staggered the Slandra and allowed Pral to quickly decapitate it.

“Is she all right?” Phanza asked quickly, hurrying over to kneel next to the fallen hunter.

“She is alive, but it seems her impetuousness will leave her with a nasty bump and a terrible headache, which you will not heal for her,” Pral responded in a monotone.
Phanza nodded, moving forward to cradle Hosus in his arms. Bertran stood over him, peering anxiously down at his dear friend, but Nar had moved to the other body beside Hosus.

“This one is also alive, though barely. Her pulse is weak and her breathing shallow, but I see no injury. Phanza, will you examine her after you wake up Hosus?”
Phanza looked over at the other woman, nodding absently.

“Walleth utum,” he whispered, and Hosus’ eyes fluttered open, “welcome back.”

Hosus looked up into the sorcerer’s eyes, and a small smile formed on her lips before a grimace of the pain in her head transformed it. “Remind me not to do that again,” she said, a bit breathily.

Phanza smiled down at her, and then gave her into Bertran’s protective arms. Shifting over to the other still form, he closed his eyes and placed his hand upon her forehead, gripping her temples lightly with his fingers. “Utumari collasci imentro,” he said in a rising crescendo. He felt a small surge of energy pulse through his fingertips, leaving him slightly woozy. He expected the spell to return to him after it had time to work its way through the body, but after several moments, nothing happened. The spell did not return. Puzzled, Phanza opened his eyes and looked down at his patient. He looked straight into two gleaming red orbs that seem to pulse in the woman’s eye sockets, not with her heartbeat, but with his.

Phanza almost dropped her then. But his soft touch upon her forehead alone was strong enough to hold her. He did not understand why, but he could not release her. Through his fingertips, he could feel both of their heartbeats slowly matching in rhythm. When her beat mirrored his, he felt a sudden pull on his fingers…except he felt the pull force through his skin and race through his body to the core of his energy. The feeling latched on and ripped the majority of his energy right out of his body.

“Phanza? Phanza! Wake up man!”

“Wha…wha…what happened?” Phanza asked groggily. He realized belatedly that he was on his back in the grass, and no longer holding the woman.

“You just looked down at the woman, and then went stiff. Next thing we know, you’re unconscious right next to her,” Nar volunteered.

The event came back to Phanza quickly. He focused inward, examining his innate power. He was astonished to find only a miniscule amount of energy remaining. He sat up shakily, looking over at the woman next to him. Though she remained still, her eyes burned a brilliant crimson, a pulsing beacon in the deepening darkness.

“You okay?” Nar asked, worry tingeing his usual cheerful voice.

“I’m fine. I’m not quite sure what happened, but I’m all right.”

Suddenly, the area plunged into darkness. Nar let out a yelp, and even the imperturbable Pral released a soft curse, raising his sword again. Everyone waited a few moments to allow their eyes to adjust, searching with eyes and ears for some remaining enemy, and only then did Phanza notice that darkness had descended because the woman’s eyes had closed. Phanza pointed this out to the group, then bent over to peer at her intently. Her breathing was deep and even, and it seemed that she was once again sleeping. He was not about probe her to find out and risk losing his remaining energy, but he touched Nar on the arm and pointed at the woman.

“I cannot touch her again. See if she sleeps, but do not disturb her.”

Nar nodded, then crawled silently over. He nudged her gently on the shoulder, and was satisfied when she did not react.

“Good enough for me,” he whispered back to Phanza.

“Nar, stand back from her. No one is to come within three paces of her tonight, not until she wakes up and we can question her,” Pral commanded.

Everyone nodded, and Bertran bent to build a small fire.

“Um, are we really going to stay here? In the middle of all these dead people?” Glyc asked. Wenley nodded vehemently in agreement. “I mean, if she knocked out Phanza when she was asleep I can understand not wanting to touch her, but staying anywhere surrounded by the dead makes me…anxious.”

“And nauseous,” Wenley added.

Pral gave the twins a withering look. “No one touches her. And since Hosus is not likely to leave her, we stay. You can go your own way if you like.” He continued to glare at the twins as they hastily argued that staying together was probably the best idea.

Bertran had stopped when the twins began speaking, but now continued to stoke a small fire. Normally, Pral would have forbidden this, but though he showed nothing, even he was slightly disturbed by the evening’s events and allowed the comforting light. Everyone huddled around the small blaze, taking heart from the small light that winked in the darkness. Hosus leaned wearily against Bertran’s shoulder, her right arm wrapped in an improvised bandage, her eyes half-shut. Phanza was feeling the consumption of his energy, and was having a difficult time remaining conscious, so he had wrapped himself in his cloak and laid down to peer into the flames.

Sleep overcame him. His unconscious mind drifted in a world of emptiness and blinding red light. It was a restless and uncomfortable night for the young mage.


Dim light filtered through her eyelids, and Johnsa squinted even though her eyes were still closed. She stifled a groan when she became awake enough to register the pounding ache forming right between her eye brows. Keeping her eyes firmly clenched, she sat up, feeling around for her sword.

“Ah, she wakes,” came a voice only a few feet from her.

Despite the terrible pain behind her eyes, Johnsa’s eyes snapped open. She quickly took in the still form of a younger man, and arrayed carefully around the ashes of a small fire sat or stood six other people. She had to look again when two of them looked exactly the same, but it was the large man with a long sword slowly exiting its scabbard that made her scrabble back. Feeling her back smack against a tree, sending a fresh wave of pain through her skull, Johnsa slowly stood, prepared to run.

“Who are you?” she demanded roughly, her voice hoarse after the previous night’s massacre. Her hands gripped the trunk behind her, steadying her against the almost overpowering dizziness.

“We are friends,” came the reply from the small woman sitting in the middle of the group by the sleeping figure. The woman looked pointedly at the man with the sword, to which he merely shrugged and began drawing his blade along a whetting stone. She gave him another look he ignored completely before she returned her attention to Johnsa.

“My name is Hosus. I found you last night surrounded by dead slandra, and tried to bring you out. I was attacked myself by a slandra and my friends here saved me.”

The scene of the night of the attack came crashing back into the forefront of her mind. She remembered the engulfing tide of Slandra that had crashed against herself and her men again and again, coming ever on no matter how many fell. She remembered seeing her men being brought down one by one around her until she stood alone in a sea of slithering serpents. She could see her dead comrade whose blade she wrested from his cold grip, see her weapons slicing through enemies like butter, her vision going red in her bloodlust…and then, nothing.

“I must thank you for rescuing me. But how did you kill so many of the snakeheads?” Johnsa said slowly. She had been completely surrounded when she had blacked out. Outside intervention was the only explanation for her survival, but she was still suspicious.

The man with the blade then looked right at Johnsa, his eyes seemingly piercing to her very soul.

“We killed none of the slandra,” he said quietly.

Johnsa felt a rush of confusion. If they hadn’t finished off the Slandra, who had? She looked at the one calling herself Hosus. Johnsa felt her eyes narrow, her suspicion overcoming her confusion.

“If you didn’t kill them, then who did?”

“You are the only survivor of your band. There are no human footsteps leading into that glade after the Slandra arrived, nor are there any departing. The only logical conclusion is…”

“That you killed them all,” came a soft voice, finishing Hosus’ statement.

Johnsa turned to regard this new speaker with fear and confusion overwhelming her. He was the young man next to Hosus, now sitting up, but his slate eyes held a weary experience that belied his youth. He returned her frightened gaze calmly, and she took some small comfort from that.

“How is that possible? I was impossibly outnumbered. I was completely surrounded and then I blacked out. It couldn’t have been me,” she ended, nearly shouted, her breath coming in painful gasps. To the group, she looked like a cornered animal, frightened beyond measure and probably dangerous.

“Be still,” he said gently, “all will be well.” He waved his hand in a small gesture of healing, and to everyone’s eyes but Johnsa’s, her eyes flashed brilliantly for a moment.

Johnsa felt a little better for some reason, and she managed to get her breathing under control. Her sniffling nose, however, refused to be mastered. When the man saw her in control of herself, he continued.

“Before we go any further, I do believe introductions are in order. My name is Phanza.”

“Johnsa,” came her surprised answer
“Well met Johnsa,” Phanza replied, bowing his head slightly. “This is Hosus. The man sharpening his sword is Pral, the twins are Glyc and Wenley. The slumbering giant’s name is Bertran, and next to him is his younger brother Nar.”

Johnsa nodded to each named, though she received a guarded look from Nar, and surprisingly, gleaming smiles from Glyc and Wenley. She quickly returned her attention to Phanza expectantly.

“Tell me, what color are your eyes?” he asked suddenly.

Johnsa was confused by this rather random question. She took on a cautious look. “Blue,” she responded hesitantly, “why?”

Her suspicions were furthered heightened when the other members of Phanza’s group looked at her and then at each other furtively. Phanza was the only one who did not look away.

“Can you tell us why your eyes are now red?”

“What are you talking about?”

Phanza pointed to a sword that had somehow avoided being completely covered in blood. Her eyes everywhere at once, Johnsa knelt to pick it up. Looking down into the reflective surface above the guard, she saw fiery hair, a blood-covered face, and two red eyes looking back at her.

This revelation completely overwhelmed Johnsa’s fragile hold on herself. She scampered back until her back was against the tree again, lifted the sword in front of her, a feral expression painted onto her features. “Who are you? What have you done to me?” she screamed at the group.